Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Sept. 8, 9 or 10
High levels of health-care spending don’t ensure a healthy society, according to the report “Why Do Americans Have Shorter Life Expectancy and Worse Health than Do People in Other High-Income Countries?” The United States spends more than any country on health care: 17.9 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In contrast, Canada’s health spending is 10.9 percent of its GDP, and Britain less: 9.4 percent. Despite that spending, says the report – which compares the United States to 16 “high-income” nations – U.S. life spans are shorter, infant mortality rates higher, obesity more common, and mental health poorer.
The report assesses various explanations for the U.S. health disadvantage, focusing on life expectancy. Authors Ichiro Kawachi of Harvard University and Mauricio Avendano of the London School of Economics compare mortality in the United States with Australia, Japan, Canada and 13 Western European nations.
“The American health disadvantage begins at birth and extends across the life course, and it is particularly marked for American women and for regions in the U.S. South and Midwest,” say Kawachi and Avendano, who both work at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
The report says that government-policy differences may play a role in shortening Americans’ lives: “Social policies and programs affecting Americans across the entire life course are less comprehensive in the United States.”
In particular, higher income inequality in the United States, weaker labor laws, and less investment in programs to address housing, poverty, education and child care may be responsible, they say.
“While multiple causes are implicated, crucial differences in social policy might underlie an important part of the U.S. health disadvantage,” the researchers note.
The study finds that the United States has the lowest life expectancy at birth for both women (80.6 years) and men (75.6 years) compared to the other 16 nations. Life expectancy also varies by U.S. region – people in the Midwest and South have the shortest lives. Among low-income Americans, rates of homicide and AIDS-related deaths are high, but another study found that white, middle-class Americans (a relatively healthy group by U.S. standards) also experience poorer health than their European counterparts.
Differences in infrastructure may contribute to differences in life expectancies. U.S. communities tend to be planned around cars, which limits opportunities for physical activity. Also, people in the United States drive longer distances and, as a result, they are more likely to die in automobile accidents.
Dr. Jerry McShane, CEO of the region’s OSF Medical Group, says inactivity has multiple causes.
“Car driving is one,” he says. “TV viewing versus playing sports is significant for children.”
As far as costs, differences in health insurance and nations’ health-care systems may explain some, but not most, of the U.S. disadvantage in life spans, according to the report. Lack of true universal health care coverage may be detrimental to health, but even Americans with insurance have poorer health than Europeans.
“Multiple differences in western society account for the differences in cost,” Dr. McShane says. “First, wages for all health care workers are higher in America than elsewhere. Next, the U.S. system is incentivized to provide too much care versus the right care. The lack of a strong primary-care base is an essential difference between the American system versus other western countries. Also, Americans have become consumers. In the past, first-dollar costs were paid by insurance companies. Patients are not discerning when the bill is paid by others. New insurance products will introduce high-deductible plans. This will reduce demand for unnecessary services. There are factors at work in America which will decrease the cost of care.”
Public health may be a result of many behaviors and policies. It seems as if Americans have undervalued the influence of social and environmental factors that influence health status. We need to place a larger emphasis on the social determinants of health as well as individual behaviors if we want to live longer. This requires a wholesale change in how we think about community health. Because public health needs action on multiple determinants, there needs to be a community-health-business-government partnership for reform.
Research can be tantalizing, but it can require study to clarify next steps, and more involvement by regular people to be more accountable for their health and more demanding of policymakers.
[PICTURED: Graphic from counselheal.com.]